Training camps will open Sept. 17, thus beginning the inexorable journey toward a Stanley Cup champion in June -- such a long journey, so many questions as yet unanswerable. Here's a look at some burning questions for the Central Division.
How does Vladimir Tarasenko follow up his breakout season?
The Blues hope the answer is, "With more of the same." And why not? Tarasenko finished last season with 73 points in 77 games, tied for 10th in the NHL, and his 37 goals were tied for fifth. He followed that up with a strong postseason, producing six goals and one assist in six games. Not bad for a 23-year-old really just coming into his own. The Blues firmly believe in Tarasenko's ability to continue to grow and backed up that belief with an eight-year deal worth $60 million. Of course it is one thing to put up monster numbers when no one really expects you to; it's another to do so when you're being paid to do just that. But Tarasenko seems up to the challenge. And he better be, given the pressure on this team to finally make good on its considerable potential after a series of disappointing playoff performances in recent seasons.
Does moving one big piece change the dynamic enough?
The Blues have developed the rather unfortunate reputation of looking like they have the goods to do real playoff damage, only to find various ways to crumble in the face of adversity come April. The Blues have not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since 2001 and have been bounced in the first round in three straight seasons. While there was much speculation that last spring's first-round loss to Minnesota would cost coach Ken Hitchcock his job, he is back. But general manager Doug Armstrong sent winger T.J. Oshie, a Blues product and fan favorite, to Washington for Troy Brouwer, a former Cup winner with Chicago who is in the final year of his contract. Is that enough? What will become of captain David Backes, who is also entering his contract year? And how does the absence of injured Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera (Tarasenko's linemate) for the early part of the season affect the Blues' ability to get out of the gate on track? One thing seems clear: This better be a season of change come playoff time, or next summer will see monumental change.
What becomes of the Blues' goaltending?
At the start of last season, the tandem of veteran Brian Elliott and Jake Allen seemed to be a nice blend for the defensive-minded, Cup-hopeful Blues. And St. Louis finished the regular season tied for fourth in goals allowed per game. But with Allen supplanting Elliott as the starter, a troubling trend once again revealed itself in the playoffs: a distinct lack of clutch goaltending. Allen allowed 12 goals on 125 shots for a .904 save percentage. It was, quite simply, not good enough for a Blues team that was dumped by Minnesota in six games. Maybe Allen learns from the experience. Maybe Elliott bounces back to retake the starter's job. Maybe. But without better goaltending at key times, the Blues will be doomed to wonder every spring about what might have been.
Can Pekka Rinne deliver a long-awaited Cup to Music City?
Never mind Shea Weber or Filip Forsberg or anyone else on this very good, surprisingly deep Predators team; this team goes as far as netminder Rinne takes them. Before he went down with a knee injury, he was in a pitched battle with Montreal's Carey Price for the Vezina Trophy and possibly the Hart Trophy as league MVP. But Rinne and the Preds slumped down the stretch, and Rinne could not come up with the key save at the key moment, as the Predators were beaten in six games by eventual Cup winner Chicago in spite of chasing starter Corey Crawford early in the series. Rinne, who was a Vezina finalist, finished the series with a pedestrian .909 save percentage. He rebounded with an outstanding turn at the World Championships for Finland, but he will turn 33 in November, which suggests the time is now for him to get it right.
The Predators made a couple of low-risk signings in summer 2014, one of which -- the addition of Mike Ribeiro -- paid off handsomely. The troubled center, who was bought out of his contract by Arizona because of off-ice issues, rebounded with a 62-point season, one point off the team lead. The rejuvenated Ribeiro signed a three-year deal with Nashville this offseason. This year's reclamation project is former 10th overall draft pick Hodgson, who was signed to a one-year deal worth $1.05 million in the offseason. Hodgson was also bought out of his last contract by the Buffalo Sabres who'd acquired him for Zack Kassian. The center has 20-goal potential and, if he can rediscover his groove, will give coach Peter Laviolette some nice options down the middle with Ribeiro and Mike Fisher already in place.
Is the Predators defense as good as any in the league?
Well, let's start with the notion that many in the hockey community felt that Roman Josi, not Weber, was the team's best defender a year ago. And that's not a slight on Weber but a reflection of the growth in Josi's game. Throw in Seth Jones, who is only going to get better; Ryan Ellis, who is finally finding his place as a top four defender; underappreciated 6-foot-4 blueliner Mattias Ekholm; and veteran Barret Jackman, who signed on after a long run in St. Louis and top to bottom this is as good as it gets in the NHL. And everyone knows defense wins championships. Right?
All you need to do is say the name to understand the myriad questions surrounding the three-time Stanley Cup champion and former playoff MVP. His very future as an NHL player remains clouded by an ongoing investigation into an alleged sexual assault that reportedly took place at Kane's lakefront home in early August. No charges have been filed, but the fallout began immediately and the result remains unknown. If he's charged, Kane will almost certainly be suspended by the league. But if the investigation drags into training camp and beyond, what then? Does the team keep Kane away to avoid the attendant media circus? What happens if police announce there will be no charges? The league or the team could still act with its own supplementary discipline if either finds it is warranted. If there are no charges and Kane returns to action, how does the experience change him? So many questions, so few answers when it comes to one of the game's most recognizable figures and such a pivotal component of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
How different are the Cup champs?
Even before the Kane situation soured the team's summer of celebration, the Blackhawks figured to be a very different team this fall than the one that celebrated a third Stanley Cup in six seasons after defeating Tampa Bay in Game 6 in June. Gone are three-time Cup winner Patrick Sharp and defenseman Johnny Oduya, who was a mainstay in the past two Cup wins. Both ended up in Dallas with Trevor Daley coming over to help fill a hole on the blue line. Brad Richards, coming of a solid playoff for the Hawks, signed in Detroit. The biggest loss was emerging young forward Brandon Saad, who was dealt to Columbus for a package that included center Artem Anisimov, as Chicago feared an offer sheet that would have upset its salary cap situation. GM Stan Bowman still has some cap issues to deal with, so guys like Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell -- whose names popped up in trade rumors during the offseason -- might not rest easy for long. All in all, a very different team is going to take the ice on Sept. 17 than the one that celebrated its most recent game at the United Center.
Is Teuvo Teravainen ready for prime time?
Asked and answered if you watched much of the playoffs. The slick Finnish forward had a nice turn in his first taste of playoff life with the Blackhawks, scoring four goals and adding six assists for the champions. Most impressive is that, as the playoffs progressed, coach Joel Quenneville seemed more and more comfortable with using Teravainen in key moments, and he delivered seven of his 10 postseason points in the Western Conference finals and Cup finals. With the departure of Sharp, Saad and Richards, the table is set for Teravainen to take an even bigger bite of NHL life as a top six forward.
How much Devan Dubnyk is enough?
If you ask GM Chuck Fletcher and the Wild, about six years is perfect for the big netminder. Fletcher saved his team's season when he plucked Dubnyk from Arizona for a third-round draft pick. Dubnyk single-handedly guided the Wild into the postseason for the third straight year, going 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average -- numbers that earned Dubnyk a Vezina Trophy nomination. Those numbers also earned the potential free agent a six-year deal from the Wild worth $26 million. Dubnyk is 29, so the back end of this deal will carry into his mid-30s. Of more immediate concern for the Wild is whether Dubnyk, whose career has had more valleys than peaks thus far, can build on last season's success or if there is a step back.
Is this the year Thomas Vanek delivers the goods when it matters most?
The Wild are a team on the verge of serious Cup contention. They've advanced to the second round of the playoffs for two straight seasons but they've been stopped by the Chicago Blackhawks the past three postseasons. Last season they were swept by Chicago, losing three games by one goal. One of the reasons the Wild signed Thomas Vanek to a three-year deal worth $19.5 million before the 2014-15 season was to deliver timely scoring. Given Vanek's propensity for cold streaks, the Wild will be happy for any scoring from the Austrian star. Vanek failed to score in 10 games last spring, and in his past 21 playoff games, including time in Montreal, Vanek has scored twice, both in one game. Not good. On the bright side, it's believed Vanek has addressed lingering groin issues with offseason surgery, so perhaps this is, indeed, the year Vanek helps the Wild over the hump.
Is this the Wild's season?
This is shaping up as a banner season for the Wild. They'll host an outdoor game in February at TCF Bank Stadium against (wait for it) Chicago. There'll be an alumni game. There is the prospect of next fall's World Cup of Hockey, which will feature a large number of Wild players led by cornerstone leaders Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom will be key fixtures on Team USA. Is there a long playoff run between those events? Suter, Parise, Jason Pominville, captain Mikko Koivu and the aforementioned Dubnyk and Vanek aren't getting any younger. Indeed, one might argue this is a team whose window to win a championship is slowly starting to close. In short, no time like the present for the Wild to make good on enormous potential and bring home a big prize to the State of Hockey.
The Jets finished the regular season tied for 10th in goals allowed per game, a heroic effort for a team that has consistently been among the league's most porous franchises. Pavelec was impressive in the face of great skepticism, turning in a .920 save percentage in 50 regular season games, while Hutchinson might have saved the Jets' season, going 21-10-5 with a .914 save percentage when he looked to take over the starter job in the middle of the season. On the downside, Pavelec was only ordinary (again) in the first round of the playoffs, sporting an .891 save percentage in the Jets' four-game sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. The goaltending tandem needs to be what it was last regular season, if not better, to ensure a repeat trip to the playoffs.
Which young Jet is poised for a big season?
We are particularly interested in what kind of impact young Dane Nikolaj Ehlers will have on a Jets team that was middle of the pack last season in both goals per game and power-play efficiency. Ehlers is smaller but highly skilled, and the ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft should have every opportunity to crack the Jets' lineup out of camp after piling up 205 points for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League the past two seasons.
The Jets are building a big, fast, talented defense corps, but does that lineup include Byfuglien long-term? Byfuglien has floated from forward to defense throughout his career but settled in on Paul Maurice's blue line. But as he enters the last year of his current deal, is there room capwise for the 6-foot-5 Byfuglien with Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Ben Chiarot forming a nice nucleus moving forward? Byfuglien, 30, will make $6 million this season, so how much higher does Cheveldayoff go to keep the big man and how much term would be required? And if Byfuglien doesn't fit long-term, does the GM try to move the big man for more scoring, especially from the left side? Cheveldayoff must also figure out what his plans will be for the captain, Ladd, who is also entering a contract year. Our guess is Ladd, making $4.5 million this season, will be easier to keep in the fold than Byfuglien.
Any more Chicago cast-offs Jim Nill can add to the mix?
Ha. Ha. Just kidding. Sort of. The two biggest moves Dallas GM Nill made in the offseason involved the acquisition of three-time Stanley Cup winner Sharp and two-time Cup winning defenseman Oduya from the Blackhawks. If playoff experience counts for something, then Nill has positioned his team to get back to the postseason after a disappointing step back last season.
But are the Stars any better?
Fair question. The team wasn't very good defensively (they tied for 26th in goals allowed per game), and, with all due respect to Oduya, does he tip the scales, especially with longtime Star Trevor Daley gone? John Klingberg was a revelation on the blue line with 11 goals and 40 points. Cody Eakin, he of the new four-year deal, also emerged as a valuable contributor up front. And of course, there's the defending Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn and the captain's sidekick Tyler Seguin, who had 37 goals in 71 games and, had he not been injured, might have taken a run at Benn's scoring title and maybe a spot on the Hart Trophy ballot. So, OK, we'll answer this question: Yes, the Stars are better. Now, are they better enough to get into the postseason?
Can the goaltending hold up its end of the playoff bargain?
To answer the second question, we must ultimately answer this question. Last season, Kari Lehtonen was simply too ordinary to keep the Stars in the hunt. His .903 save percentage in 65 games wasn't nearly good enough. And while some of that is the Stars' poor defensive play, lots of it was Lehtonen, and proof of that is in the offseason arrival of fellow Finn Antti Niemi, who wore out his welcome in San Jose. The theory is the two former Olympians will push each other to make each other better. Maybe it works out that way. If it doesn't, the Stars aren't a playoff team -- simple as that.
Feast or famine in the Rockies?
Holy swings of emotion, Batman. Two seasons ago under rookie coach Patrick Roy, the Avs shocked the hockey world with a dramatic rise to the top of the Central Division. They were dumped in the first round of the 2014 playoffs by Minnesota in seven games, but optimism was through the roof for the first time in Denver in years. Then the Avs came back to earth and were never really a factor in the playoff race in 2015, finishing last in the Central and nine points back of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. It's clear the Avs weren't as good as they showed in winning the division, and they likely weren't as bad as they showed finishing last. So where do they really fit? Somewhere in the middle, but does that middle return them to the postseason? That's a harder question to answer.
Is the defense appreciably better?
The Avs finished tied for 21st in goals allowed per game last season, and lots of that was once again the heroics of 2014 Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov covering up mistakes with a nice .921 save percentage. Erik Johnson's loss at the All-Star break to injury was key, and the acquisition of Brad Stuart last offseason turned out to be a significant error in judgment. This summer head of hockey ops Joe Sakic added veteran Francois Beauchemin (three-year deal worth $13.5 million), who was instrumental in mentoring young defenders like Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler in Anaheim. It's likely at least a year too long, but if he can help guys like 20-year-old Nikita Zadorov (all 6-foot-5 of him that came over from Buffalo in the Ryan O'Reilly deal) and 21-year-old Duncan Siemens (the 11th overall pick in 2011), then the investment will pay big dividends.
Does the offense bounce back?
Remember when the theory was the Avs would be able to run with any team in the league given their high-octane offense? Didn't work out that way, as Colorado was tied for 22nd in goals per game. The power play was even worse, finishing a shocking 29th in efficiency, ahead of only lowly Buffalo. That has to change, obviously, if the Avs are going to keep pace in the Central. The 2014 rookie of the year Nathan MacKinnon took a step back last season, missing 18 games with injury and dropping from 63 points to 38. Will Carl Soderberg (signed away from Boston) and Mikhail Grigorenko (another piece of the O'Reilly deal) add some much-needed offensive balance? Could be. Or more to the point: better be.